Review: Thinking Like a Lawyer

Thinking Like a LawyerThinking Like a Lawyer, Colin Seale. Waco: Prufrock Press, 2020.

Summary: Applies the framework law students learn to teaching critical thinking for all school students.

Colin Seale was a disruptive student in school until a perceptive teacher had him tested and got him into a gifted program. Later, when he slacked off on studies, a school counselor leaned into his poor performance based on his past grades, got him into a summer school, where he was thought smart, and he decided to live up to it. In college, he almost gave up on his course of study, but his mother told him, “You have always figured things out, and you just have to figure this out. I have to get back to work.”

Three people saw through his behavior and refused to allow him to waste his potential, resulting in him getting into law school, where he ended up at the top of his class. There he learned what it meant to “think like a lawyer.” Something else happened as well. To work his way through law school, he taught school. He discovered that the critical thinking methods and skills he used so successfully in his classes could help his students — even those who were academic under-achievers. He discovered that instead of critical thinking being some high level skill only advanced students could use, it was a key skill that motivated all sorts of other kinds of learning. This book reflects his efforts to apply the teaching of critical thinking throughout the educational process.

He defines critical thinking as:

  1. the set of skills and dispositions we need
  2. to learn what we need to learn
  3. to solve problems across disciplines
  4. that are grounded in the spirit of doing right instead of being right

He calls his approach the “thinkLaw framework.” It involves:

  • Analysis from Multiple Perspectives: understanding all sides of an argument. He unpacks this further as the DRAAW+C framework
    • Decision: Who should win?
    • Rule/Law: What is the rule or law for this case?
    • Arguments plaintiff will make:
    • Arguments defendent will make:
    • World: Looking at the big picture, why is your decision better for the world than other possible decisions?
    • Conclusion: Re-write the Decision as a Conclusion
  • Mistake analysis: identifying what mistake we should really care about and what mistake “Joe Schmo” is most likely to make.
  • Investigation and Discovery: what do we know and what do we need to know?
  • Settlement and Negotiation: Determine the underlying interests, Identify the best outcome if you fail to negotiate a settlement, and Make a proposal that addresses interests and exceeds your best outcome without a settlement.
  • Competition: in law school, being a good student is not enough. success requires creative analysis that uses all these other skills to argue a conclusion better than one’s classmates.

The rest of the book unpacks how all this can work to make everything from literature and social studies to math and science fertile ground for critical thinking. He outlines a variety of structures that can be woven into instruction, contrasts it with “engagement,” discusses the use of thinkLaw in classroom management, test prep, and with families–particularly with not enabling learned helplessness by intervening in homework struggles (kind of like his mother did with him as a college student).

Reading this, on one hand, felt like thinkLaw was the silver bullet for whatever ails education. What I would love to see is a more detailed study of the difference his methods make in a school or school system that adopts them. At the same time, what comes through in every page of the book is the conviction that we under-estimate what students are capable of, and particularly in this matter of critical. If more students have to look at a question from all sides, work rigorously to discover what is known, learn to analyze mistakes, including the ones they make, and to think how their solutions work in the real world, we certainly would have students equipped for whatever innovations in technology and the nature of work are thrown at them.

What comes through on every page, unmistakably, is Colin Seale’s passion that we “simply have to stop leaving genius on the table.” Sometimes that genius comes in the form of those most creative in disruption, more often seen as a problem than as genius. Can Seale’s critical thinking methods develop that disruptive genius? He suggests one of the real payoffs in observing that often the people companies turn to when they need to innovate or turnaround are those skilled in “creative disruption.” Likely they weren’t the good students in class–more likely the cut-ups or disruptive ones. Like Colin Seale.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher via LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers Program. The opinions I have expressed are my own.